Researchers on an expedition off Cape Hatteras have become the first to see a German U-boat and the freighter it sank in World War II since they both went down in 1942.
The expedition by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the underwater battlefield has succeeded despite bad weather, officials say.
The crew of the freighter SS Bluefields survived its sinking. But reaching the wreck of U-576, which holds the remains of 45 crew members, was a haunting moment for the scientists aboard a research vessel.
“It goes from a page in a scientific report down to a very real place at the bottom of the ocean,” said David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in Newport News, Va.
“When you see (the submarine) and see the dive planes tilted up in a sign that the ship was doing everything it could to get to the surface, and all the hatches sealed, you realize that this is a tomb for all those young men we fought. You begin to look at it a little differently.”
All told nearly 1,600 sailors, including 1,100 merchant mariners, died off North Carolina during the war, Alberg said. Most died in 1942, when U-boats attacked merchant convoys in what historians call the “Battle of the Atlantic.”
The Hatteras wrecks, 240 yards apart in 750 feet of water, had previously been viewed only by the sonar that located them in 2014.
The expedition launched last week and made its first dives with mini-submarines on Aug. 24. NOAA is working with Project Baseline, a nonprofit conservation group that supplied the research vessel and two mini-subs, UNC’s Coastal Studies Institute and other partners.
Approaching tropical storms – the sort that sank thousands of ships off the Outer Banks over the centuries – forced the ship back to Beaufort on Monday. Officials hope to go back out this weekend to work until Tuesday.
“We got some really remarkable data,” Alberg said. “Even if we wrap it up early, we’ll come away from this with the data that meets our goal.”
The mini-subs and an unmanned vehicle took photographs to generate three-dimensional models, laser scans to produce precisely detailed images and sonar to sweep the ocean bottom and water column around the wrecks. The data will generate a 3D, rotating model of the battle site that will eventually be available online to the public.
“It’s a snapshot in time now,” Alberg said. “Seventy-four years after this sinking, we can see the condition of this wreck. One of the mysteries is, what were the last minutes for the crew like? What caused the sinking?”
Despite being the target of depth charges dropped by Navy planes and being swept with machine gun fire from a merchant ship in the convoy, the U-boat shows no outward sign of damage.
NOAA is now considering proposals to expand the Monitor National Monument to cover other offshore World War II wrecks. A recommendation could emerge in late winter or early spring.